I’ve always struggled with Shakespeare. The dialogue, the convoluted stories, the sometimes-creepy interpretations…it’s just never been my thing. Granted, my exposure to him has been pretty limited. I’ve seen two productions of Hamlet (which could depress a hyena), various retellings of Romeo and Juliet (someone needs to tell Taylor Swift it didn’t end the way she tells it), and the plays I read in high school: Macbeth, Measure for Measure, Hamlet, and Henry V.
That said, I thoroughly enjoyed Henry V. Hal, in my mind, was just plain cool. He was dashing, driven, heroic, and soooooo romantic. I infinitely preferred him over a certain bipolar Danish prince. So when I recently had the opportunity to buy The Hollow Crown, a 4-episode TV series consisting of the plays Richard II, Henry IV, and my favorite Henry V, I jumped at it. And for the first time, I can say I am in love with a Shakespeare production.
I admit, I probably would not have been so curious if Tom Hiddleston didn’t play my favorite character. Tom Hiddleston…how shall I put this in a dignified and intelligent fashion?…has earned my greatest respect and admiration as one of the finest, kindest, and most intelligent actors of our age. But I promise, he’s not the only reason I love this show. Richard II doesn’t have any Tom. He isn’t in every scene of Henry IV either–AND I read and enjoyed Henry V before I even knew Tom Hiddleston existed. So, here are my other reasons for giving this show two thumbs-up:
- These are movies. Not “plays.” You have exciting battle scenes, magnificent castles, grimy little medieval villages, English naval ships, background music, etc. This is Shakespeare on an epic, gritty, adventurous scale, and it feels REAL.
- The talent in this show is marvelous. The dialogue simply rolls off the actors’ tongues. They speak DISTINCTLY and with spirit and passion. I still had to pay attention (no checking my mail or Twitter while listening to Harry Hotspur rage against the king), but I understood what they were saying.
- While there are a few depressing scenes, it’s NOT Hamlet. (Can you tell I’m 100% done with Hamlet?) Shakespeare gives you several very likable characters in the “Henriad”–and while it ends on a bittersweet note, you still come away wanting to scream “Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and St. George!” at the top of your lungs. (I did, anyway.)
Richard II is the first of the episodes. This play tells the story of a frivolous young king, led astray by his “flatterers.” Richard (Ben Whishaw) is concerned only with his own fun and pleasure, at the expense of his country and any sense of honor towards his friends and family. When he seizes the property of his dead uncle, John of Gaunt (Patrick Stewart), he tramples on the rights and inheritance of his banished cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear, AKA Lord Septimus in Return to Cranford). When Bolingbroke finds out he’s been robbed of his inheritance, he returns to England in a fury, defying the King’s banishment, and leads a fomenting rebellion against Richard.
Ultimately, Richard is overthrown and ends up murdered in the Tower of London, and Bolingbroke is crowned Henry IV. (Spoilers, I know–but for heaven’s sake, the play is some 500 years old. And you can get those spoilers from a history book.)
I did not like Richard. He was a prissy drama queen. If he really cared about his country he would’ve never ended up in such a nasty predicament–but nooooooo, he flounced off with his “favorites” and stole his cousin’s rightful inheritance and pampered his pet monkey. And then had an outright crying fit when the nobles demanded he give up his crown to his far nobler cousin. Ugh.
Bolingbroke, however, I really liked. He seemed like an honorable man who found himself caught up in a war that he never wanted, against a king who, in better times, had been his close friend. Nor did he punish a man who prophesied that bitter ruin would eventually come upon him for waging war against Richard. It was almost as if Bolingbroke knew he treaded dangerous waters by rebelling against an anointed king, and he refused to make light of it.
Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 continue Bolingbroke’s story as King Henry IV, but also begins the story of his young son, Hal. Henry IV is now played by the magnificent Jeremy Irons, while Tom Hiddleston plays Prince Hal.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” old King Henry says–and just as the prophet foretold in Richard II, his reign is indeed uneasy. This time it’s Harry Hotspur, his nephew, who leads a rebellion against him. King Henry prepares for war while bemoaning the foolhardiness of his son, who is determined to spend his days as Prince of Wales romping through the kingdom, having as much fun as possible before he becomes king.
Part of the charm of Henry IV (especially in Part 1) comes from the lovable Prince Hal and his merry men, led by the sometimes-irritating but often-hilarious Sir John Falstaff. I couldn’t help it: I cracked up more than once over their antics.
But King Henry has no time for Hal’s shenanigans. In one of the most powerful scenes in the whole series, he confronts Hal over his irresponsible ways. After that harsh but necessary scolding, Hal begins to change. He works hard to earn his father’s respect, slowly accepting his intimidating role as the future king and fighting for causes greater than himself.
Thankfully, gruff old King Henry does love his son and finally comes to respect and trust him…even if he doesn’t give Hal full evidence of that trust until it’s almost too late.
Henry V brings Hal’s magnificent story to its triumphant conclusion. I had high expectations for this one and I wasn’t disappointed. It now claims a spot of honor on my Favorite Movies List.
Hal has completely thrown off his foolish past–which, in some ways, is rather sad because he’s no longer in contact with Falstaff or his merry men–but at the same time, such a step was necessary. Bad company corrupts good morals–and without the undoubtedly negative influence of Falstaff (no matter how funny he could be), Hal becomes a very responsible, devout, and much-loved king.
But trouble is brewing on the horizon: Hal believes he has a legitimate claim to the French throne, thanks to his descent from his great-grandmother, Isabella of France. (By the way, that’s the Princess in Braveheart, in case anyone wanted a point of reference.) Naturally, the French aren’t too happy with that, and they respond to his claims with taunts.
Worst. Strategy. Ever. One does not simply try to intimidate Hal. Infuriated, he crosses the English Channel and conquers France all the way to the famous Battle of Agincourt, where his weary and outnumbered men score an overwhelming victory over the much larger French army.
This is where Hal delivers the famous “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” speech. Laurence Olivier’s interpretation had the young king passionately shouting the lines from a wooden cart, with a crowd of soldiers gathered around him. I’ve seen clips of it and it’ll send shivers up your spine. Tom Hiddleston’s version is very different, still deeply emotional but in a quiet, heartfelt way.
After Agincourt, Hal makes his next move towards claiming the throne of France: marry the young French princess Katherine. But rather than simply marry her for politics’ sake, Hal genuinely loves this girl. Unfortunately for us who would’ve liked more character development for Kate (*grumble grumble*), Shakespeare doesn’t show her first meeting with Hal or how he fell head-over-heels in love with her at first sight (which is 100% historically accurate). But we do get this proposal scene where you figure out pretty darn fast that Hal is smitten, and she is too.
And it’s adorably awkward…
But then the movie ends on a heartbreaking note. A few months after Hal brought Kate to England and had her crowned Queen in Westminster Abbey, he returned to France on another military campaign. There he contracted dysentery and died (I know, I know, “That’s what people DO!!”) and Kate was left all alone with her new baby, little King Henry VI. Of course I was curious about what happened to her, so I looked her up…and ended up stunned and amazed. Kate eventually married an English knight by the name of Owen Tudor…and their descendant, Henry Tudor, ended up becoming King Henry VII of England, the father of Henry VIII and the founder of the Tudor dynasty.
WOW WOW WOW. History nerds, can I get a “WOW”?!
This still applies, though, regardless of Tudor awesomeness.
I’m on a second watch right now with my sisters. I bargained: “Watch The Hollow Crown with me and I’ll watch Batman vs. Robin with you.” I also watched Coriolanus this past weekend, the live production version with (you guessed!) Tom Hiddleston in the title role. It was fantastic, but very intense. Lots of fighting (both physical, verbal, and political), and just when you thought his character was going to reconcile with his friends and family, Tom went and “died” onscreen. And I don’t like to watch my favorite actors “die” onscreen (*coughcoughRedDawncoughcough*).
Thankfully I didn’t have to go through that with Henry V. Hal died offscreen and it was much gentler on the emotions.
But in conclusion: yes, I have a new fandom. Maybe I’ll even be able to stomach Hamlet again now that I have this newfound appreciation for Shakespeare 😉